Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trailside Killer of San Francisco


Map of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Map of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Ellen Marie Hansen and Stephen Haertle, undergraduates at the University of California at Davis, were hiking in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park on March 29, 1981.  This area was about eighty miles south of San Francisco, near to Santa Cruz — another town that had suffered a series of murders during the early 1970s.  Edmund KemperJohn Linley Frazier and Herbert Mullin  had killed there around the same time, Frazier targeting a family, Kemper killing coeds, and Mullin imagining he had to eliminate "sacrifices" to protect the state from an earthquake. It had been nearly a decade, however, since all of that had happened and all three offenders were safely behind bars.

Ellen Hansen
Ellen Hansen

Steve Haertle would later describe what had taken place, as he managed to survive despite being shot. A man approached them, he said, not far from an observation deck and he had a pistol in his hand.  He threatened them with it and insisted that Hansen allow him to rape her.  She refused, and Haertle begged the man to let them go, but the stranger lifted his gun and in front of Haertle, shot Hansen point-blank, twice, in the head and once in the shoulder.  Haertle was horrified but unable to get away as the stranger then shot him as well.  However, the bullets burrowed through his neck, so he was not killed.  The man fled the area as Haertle sought help from other hikers.

He was obviously in a perfect position to offer police a description of this attacker, although trauma involving guns often interferes with one's memory.  Steve did recall the man's crooked yellow teeth and thought he was about fifty and balding.  He'd had a backpack and wore dark glasses, as well as a gold jacket with lettering on the back and a baseball cap.  In addition, he'd spoken in quick, commanding sentences.  Steve estimate that he'd been about five-foot-ten to six feet tall, and about 170 pounds.

Along with what Haertle offered, other people also reported a man they had seen on the observation deck, running after the gunshots, and driving off in a red car of foreign make.  One girl thought it was a Fiat.  The Post Standard indicated that there had been seven witnesses altogether who reported the man to the police.  The resulting physical description differed markedly from that of the Marin County Killer, but not the MO. 

As much as police need to rely on eyewitnesses, they also know that memory is tricky and many people who believe in what they've seen are nevertheless wrong.  About 80% of people exonerated in recent years, who served time in prison, can attest to the mistakes.  One man even had five witnesses give erroneous testimony that linked him to a murder. 

Yet investigators did manage to get some good shoeprint impressions, so that if they developed a suspect, they could compare his shoe size, and perhaps even his shoes, (if he didn't toss them), to the impressions.

Police Sketch of Suspect
Police Sketch of Suspect

They ran the composite drawing in a number of newspapers, both to alert people to what this dangerous person looked like and to get new leads from residents who might know him.  Only four days later, a woman called to describe a man who resembled the picture. She had been on a cruise to Japan some twenty-six years earlier and had confronted a young man named David Carpenter, a purser on that cruise, who had been bothering her daughter with inappropriate behavior.  She recalled that he had stuttered — the speech impediment that Douglas had suggested — and had proof of his name from where he'd signed her daughter's book.

The police looked into it, but there were many men in northern California named David Carpenter.  As they moved forward with their investigation, the killer was reading the newspaper.  He decided it was time to grow a beard.  He also had found a way to lure another young woman into his net.  However, this time he killed much closer to home, leading the police right to him.  Either stupid or arrogant, he made yet another mistake, and while the police benefited, a pretty blond fell victim.


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